The bush is burning in Australia. A catastrophe of biblical proportions is taking place before our eyes. The Bible is relevant here. In the Book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, telling him to lead his people to a land of milk and honey. What is the voice of Australia’s conscience in the burning bush telling the world today?
First, some facts. Some six billion hectares have burned and half a billion animals are thought to have died in the 2019-20 season already. That is six times the area that burned in last year’s Amazon rainforest and 60 times the area that burned in California.
Australia’s bushfires normally last several months and so the present emergency could last until May. So far 17 people are known to have died, but in 2009 the death toll reached 173. This time, the scale of bushfires is unprecedented. Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra have all been enveloped in a cloud of smoke and ash the size of Europe.
The immediate causes of the crisis are a perfect storm of prolonged drought, strong winds and high temperatures. Bushfires are a normal part of the Australian ecosystem, but these ones are so vast that many species will struggle to regenerate. Climate change has undoubtedly exacerbated the intensity and scope of the destruction, according to scientists. But the issue has become highly politicised in Australia. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was elected last year on an economic programme that includes new coal mines and resistance to climate alarmism. He has been widely criticised for initially ignoring the bushfires, until public opinion forced him to interrupt his family holiday.
The immediate question is: what is to be done? The country is united in coping with the disaster, which is particularly acute in New South Wales, where the largest population centres are located. American and other foreign assistance has arrived; more is on the way. But firefighters are struggling to contain the spread of the many blazes, let alone extinguish them. A bigger international effort may yet be required.
It is noticeable that China, Australia’s neighbour and biggest trading partner, has so far been silent. Beijing is the main market for Australia’s mineral extraction industries, yet is seemingly indifferent, not only to the destruction but also to the pollution caused by smoke and ash. Chinese people may feel differently if and when they are directly affected by these airborne pollutants, but their government has chosen to ignore climate change by building huge numbers of new coal-fired power plants. Many of these will burn fuel imported from Australia, which is the world’s second biggest thermal coal exporter. One fifth of these exports go to China, though this volume is precarious in an era of lower Chinese growth.
Australians cannot be blamed for the much larger climate impact of huge economies such as China, India and the US. But the bushfires do feel like a turning point. Coal represents only a small proportion of Australia’s energy and mineral resource exports: less than 10 per cent of a total of $278 billion. Does it really make sense to invest heavily in a sector that is not only environmentally damaging but may not have a long-term future?
A national debate is urgently needed about how those who depend on the extraction industries can be reconciled with those who do not, so that a new consensus can be built that protects both Australia’s unique ecology and its prosperity. Australians must listen to the voice of conscience that speaks from their burning bush. So, too, as we contemplate the tragic loss of flora and fauna, should the rest of humanity.